TT: Time for a Change

JANE: So, we’ve been chattering away about perennial SF/F themes.  Last week we were talking about time travel and, of course, did not have sufficient time to do justice to a complex topic.

I believe you were going to tell me about your favorite accidental time travel story.

Time for Halloween

Time for Halloween

ALAN: The very best accidental time travel story is L. Sprague de Camp’s novel Lest Darkness Fall. Martin Padway, a twentieth century archeologist, is struck by lightning and transported back to the dying days of the Roman Empire. He survives by introducing (or in some cases failing to introduce) twentieth century ideas to the society. The story is similar to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but it hangs together much better and, despite having been published in 1939, it hasn’t dated at all. It’s still a marvellous story.

JANE: I’ve read it and enjoyed it.  It’s definitely more a “tech” story, while A Connecticut Yankee is more a social commentary story.  Can you think of other “accidental time travel” stories?  I’m drawing a blank.

ALAN: Yes – there’re quite a few. The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream by G. C. Edmondson tells the story of a US Navy battleship equipped with some complex electronics designed to detect submarines. After being caught in a freak storm, the next thing the crew notices is a Viking longboat off the port bow…

Gerald Kersh’s short story “The Brighton Monster” is the harrowing tale of a man caught in the blast of the Hiroshima atomic bomb who is transported 200 years into the past. In a similar vein, David I. Masson’s “A Two Timer” is the story of a 17th Century man’s revulsion at the modern, 20th Century world he is transported to. This story is a little linguistic gem – it is told entirely in the vocabulary and idiom of the late seventeenth century!

But probably the most famous is Eric Flint’s 1632 (and its many, many, many sequels by other writers) in which a modern American community is stranded lock, stock and barrel in seventeenth-century Germany during the Thirty Years’ War.

JANE: Sheesh!  How could I forget?  S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time is an accidental time travel story, and one I really love.  In this case, the entire island of Nantucket and those boats close by end up in the exact same location, but in the Bronze Age.  Unlike the “Emberverse” series, to which it is related by shared disaster, this series only goes for three volumes, each of which packs a lot of punch.

ALAN: I’m glad I could jog your memory!

JANE: So, once travel in time becomes more than an experiment, tourism is a likely development – and, as I mentioned last time, that tourism may have vast ramifications.  Still, let’s start with those stories built around simple touring.

ALAN: Plundering other times or using them for tourism is best exemplified by Robert Silverberg’s Hawksbill Station, and his hilarious (and sometimes quite dirty) Up the Line. Rather more seriously, Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man sends an observer to the crucifixion of Jesus with unexpected results…

JANE: I keep meaning to – and forgetting – to read Behold the Man.  I wonder if some time traveler is messing with my memory.

Once people start being about to tour in time, there will be those who will wish to exploit the past – no matter how dangerous their ventures will be to others, both in the past and present.  For that reason, “time police” were a logical development.  Do you have any favorites?

ALAN: The best “time police” stories are what is arguably Isaac Asimov’s finest novel, The End of Eternity and Poul Anderson’s Guardians of Time, a fix-up novel first published in 1955. I was addicted to the Anderson stories in my childhood and I read them countless times. Baen Books republished the book (and retitled it as Time Patrol) in 2006 with some extra stories added.  I was pleased to see that it still read very well.

JANE: I can’t remember if I’ve read The End of Eternity, but I’m very fond of the “Time Patrol” tales.  I’ve often thought that they would make a great framework for a role-playing game or theme anthology because different people could run the games or write the stories within the same framework, but without the awkward problems of shared terrain.

I wonder if anyone has ever done either of these?

ALAN: I don’t know. Certainly I can’t remember any such anthologies.  I’m not a gamer, so I’m not well informed about that aspect. I wonder if any of our readers know?

JANE: Hopefully, they’ll weigh in if they do.

Now, as I recall, you separated out “wars across time” from “time police.”   Can you explain why these are different?  After all, many a modern war has developed when police action is not enough.

ALAN: I agree that they do tend to merge into each other, but I think of “time police” stories as being concerned with efforts to maintain the “real” time stream (whatever that means – the reality that is being preserved may not always be one that we recognise as our own). In other words the time police are charged with preventing actions that may change the course of history. Time wars, on the other hand, have no such concerns. Indeed, changing history may well be a deliberate tactic used by the warring sides in order to obtain a strategic advantage.

JANE: That’s an excellent differentiation.  Of course, for any of these to work, the author needs to figure out a way around what has become a very common explanation as to what would actually happen if someone played around with time.  This is that the original timeline wouldn’t change, rather an alternate would be created.

ALAN: Once you start delving too deeply into that particular aspect of time travel, you are only a teensy, weensy step away from a full-blown Alternate History story. The one segues imperceptibly into the other. Indeed, you could argue that novels such as L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall are just as much Alternate History stories as they are time travel stories, and if you did, I don’t think I’d disagree with you too strongly.

Mind you, these days Alternate History stories are largely moribund because Harry Turtledove bestrides the field like a colossus and so he has the whole theme to himself.

JANE: There is some truth to that…  Still, can you recommend Time War story?

ALAN: Absolutely, but first, I just thought of another great Time Police story. John Brunner’s Times Without Number features a Society of Time that struggles hard to preserve a historical framework in which the Spanish Armada successfully invaded and occupied England. I’ve often felt that the Spanish Armada is to British SF what the Battle of Gettysburg is to American SF…

Wars across time are perhaps best exemplified by Fritz Leiber’s Change War stories. Probably the most well-known of these is his novel The Big Time.

JANE: I’ve read The Big Time, but it’s been a while.  I don’t think I realized Lieber had done other stories within that framework.

ALAN: In addition to the novel, there’s a collection of linked short stories that was published as The Change War.

JANE: Thanks!  We’ve had a lot of fun with this, but I think it’s time we turned to the Big Question…  How about next time?

7 Responses to “TT: Time for a Change”

  1. Peter Says:

    Andre Norton fills in a sort of gap between the “time police” and “time wars” with her Time Traders novels, which are closer to “time espionage” (the basic setup has time travelers from the US chasing time travelers from the Soviet Union into the distant past, where the Soviets have found an – already long-abandoned – alien base in the Neolithic, which they are mining for (even more advanced than time travel) technology. She also did “accidental time travel” in Wraiths of Time, in which a modern archeologist has her mind flung back in time and into the body of a Nubian princess. (I’m convinced that Norton did at least one of everything in the genre at some point.)

    On the subject of alternate history, while Turtledove has more or less cornered the market on “hard” alternate history, there’s still plenty of room in…I’m not sure it even has a name. Ahistorical fantasy? I’m thinking of novels like Mary Gentle’s Ash, a Secret History of Burgundy, Naomi Novik’s Napoleonic dragon warfare novels, or John M. Ford’s magnificent The Dragon Waiting.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      I’d forgotten the Time Traders, and I really enjoyed them. Thanks for the reminder.

      And the other alternate history titles are interesting. We did rein ourselves in there because we so often push the TL/DR limit as it is!

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    So far as exploitative time travel goes, there’s Kage Baker’s fun “Company” series. I happen to like some of them, because there’s a California history theme that keeps popping up.

    If you want loopy (literally) time travel, there’s Charles Stross’ novella “Palimpsest.” There are also Fritz Leiber’s Snake and Spider stories, in a similar vein.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      Kage Baker has not been forgotten, but we can only put so much in at a time! But Alan would very much agree with you.

      I’m not sure I’d read those Leiber stories. And I love the title of the Stross novella in this context.

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    There’s also the good old cross-time version that Piper, Norton and Laumer all did well, following up on the notion that if there are alternate outcomes each spawns a new time line that can be visited. I guess that you’re treating that as a separate subject for this discussion.

    Sam Merwin came up with an interesting wrinkle on that one that let his characters time travel without time travel: positing that the pace of history wasn’t the same in every alternate universe, or perhaps that they didn’t correspond 1-1 in their time stamps. Thus in one book he has people intervening in Titus’ Rome just before the eruption of Vesuvius. In fact, the good guys _trigger_ the eruption, and Pliny the Elder is killed doing it, since he’s one of their local agents [there’s a war on, of course, and they dump a bomb in the volcano to set it off and block a gate that their opponents are about to bring a major military force through]. Final outcome leaves Titus firmly on the throne, with Berenice as his Empress.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Actually, I think we both overlooked “cross time” as a separate element, lumping it in with time war and, even more time police, but you’re not the only person to see it as separate!

  4. Katie Says:

    In the “time tourism” vein, kind of, are Connie Willis’s pair of novels /Blackout/ and /All Clear/, where time-travel is controlled by historians who go back to observe events and write graduate theses on them. The rules of time travel state that the timeline protects itself and historians can’t change the past…but now glitches are appearing that indicate maybe that’s not as true as they thought… Very enjoyable, fast-paced, part time-travel and part WWII historical fiction (I frequently recommend the novels to people who “don’t read SF” though SF fans also usually enjoy them).

    I’m adding lots to my TBR list from this series of Tangents!

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